In 2005, Dave Chappelle was merely the hottest comedian in America. Then he left his job and became a far more singular cultural figure: A renegade to some, a lunatic to others, but most of all, an enigma.
Now he is making a kind of comeback — Mr. Chappelle headlines the Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, a new 15-city tour produced by the Funny or Die Web site that begins Friday in Austin, Tex. — and what makes it particularly exciting is how he’s using his hard-earned mystique to make more daring and personal art.
Mr. Chappelle didn’t just walk away from a $50 million contract and the acclaimed “Chappelle’s Show,” whose second season on Comedy Central stacks up well against the finest years of “SCTV,” “Saturday Night Live” and Monty Python. He did so dramatically, fleeing to Africa and explaining his exit in moral terms: “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling,” he told Time magazine. Since then, he has been a remote star in an era when comedians have never been more accessible.
Mr. Chappelle hasn’t done any interviews (aside from a radio appearance in 2011) or appeared on podcasts or talk shows. He doesn’t even have a Web site. He joined Twitter last year, then quit after 11 tweets.
But Mr. Chappelle has tiptoed back into the public eye over the last year. While he has stayed away from movies and television, he still drops in pretty often on comedy clubs and occasionally theaters, usually in surprise appearances that generate more rumors of a comeback. Beyond the Oddball Festival, Chris Rock has said Mr. Chappelle may join him on his stand-up tour next year. Since seeing him perform at the start of the year, I have noticed an increased urgency in his comedy by the summer. A show I saw in San Francisco in March was charismatic if chaotic: freewheeling, improvisational and full of crowd work. But when I caught three of his shows in June down South, his act was very different: polished, thematically unified, less work in progress than test run.